Sign up for our newsletter

High peaks: Swiss Valais gravel ride

In-depth
26 Apr 2021
Advertisement

The jagged skyline of the Valais region of Switzerland provides a stunning backdrop for a gravel ride with very few lows but plentiful highs

Words and photography: Alain Rumpf

Switzerland has its fair share of incredible road passes. The Grosse Scheidegg, Furka, St Gotthard and Albula are some of the best known, all incredibly scenic and generally with far fewer visitors (and hence traffic) than their giant French and Italian counterparts.

Even so, you’re rarely alone on the tarmac in the way you can be completely alone on gravel. There is also the fact that roads don’t allow you to spend so much time above the treeline as the rough stuff does. And that’s where the adventure really begins.

The Valais region of Switzerland is the perfect territory for such an adventure. The high-perched villages and the abundance of 4,000m peaks (Valais is home to 22 peaks above that altitude), provide a visually stunning arena for any ride, but especially when the route can enter the true heart of those landscapes, not just skirt around its edges.

With a gravel bike you can ride up far beyond where the roads crest and leave behind those inclined only to follow the well-trodden path.

There are many cavernous valleys, with myriad quiet farm roads and manageable trails ripe for a gravel bike to explore. Dead ends are no more, the surface doesn’t really matter and suddenly there are all these new options available, either to connect you to the next valley or venture higher towards a peak.

And if you have to walk a bit, so be it. Hike-a-bike sections are OK, within measure. And this ride certainly dishes up a little bit of everything.

 

Sneak peaks

For today’s two-wheeled adventure I’m joined by two friends: Luca and Nathalie. For Luca, an Italian who has raced both on mountain bikes and the road, gravel riding is a newfound love. I can see his face light up with anticipation when I explain that parts of today’s route are expected to get a little rugged.

His mountain bike skills mean that he’s an extremely good technical rider, and I often find myself struggling to keep him in sight on the downhills when we head off-road together.

Nathalie, meanwhile, is a Valais native who only recently got an appetite for gravel after she switched to off-road riding last winter when the roads here became too icy and dangerous. So you could say we are a somewhat eclectic trio as we set off from the centre of Martigny, just before sunrise on this August morning.

Martigny, founded by the Romans in the first century BC, was all set to host the 2020 UCI World Road Race Championships, but the global Covid-19 pandemic decreed otherwise and they had to be moved elsewhere.

We’re trying to put that to the back of our minds today as we ease ourselves into pedalling through the near-silent streets of the still-sleeping city, the day only just dawning.

 

We’re excited about what is ahead, and we are already beaming broad smiles, aside from Luca’s brief annoyance at not finding anywhere open at this hour to indulge his ritual pre-ride espresso. But he is Italian, so we can forgive him for that.

Besides, I have another plan to wake him up. The first climb towards the Col du Tronc will do the trick. The ascent starts as soon as we leave Martigny, ramping up steeply on a narrow paved road. We gain altitude quickly as the gradient hovers between 9% and 12%.

It’s quite a rude awakening for the legs, although a smattering of switchbacks does at least help to break it up. And it’s not long before the tarmac turns to gravel, at which point we find ourselves forgetting about hairpins and riding through a verdant landscape peppered with beautiful larch trees, the morning dew still clinging to their extremities.

The sun is not yet high enough for its rays to touch this side of the valley so the air remains chilly, but as we climb higher I can already see a bright streak of light sweeping across the opposite side, gloriously spotlighting the high peaks of the Rhone Valley. The noise of cowbells can be heard in the distance. It really couldn’t feel more Swiss here if it tried.

Head for the sky

Unfortunately for Luca’s ongoing yearning for caffeine, the buvette at the top of the climb – a typical mountain cafe serving refreshments and simple local dishes – is still closed when we arrive. Cursing and gesturing as only Italians can, he attacks the descent ahead of us with extra gusto, quickly leaving us behind in a cloud of dust.

Nathalie and I may not be able to keep pace with Luca, but the surface is smooth with well-packed gravel and it is pure bliss to descend on, so we feel confident letting go of the brakes and feeling the speed build.

It comes as a pleasant surprise to me – this is a section used in the route of the Verbier Gravel Challenge, a local event I was keen to check out, and I’m riding this trail for the first time.

When we reach the little village of Le Châble, after a few very pleasant kilometers rolling along in the Val de Bagnes, I’m reminded of a famous attack by Alberto Contador in the 2009 Tour de France. It was from here that he struck out to solo to victory at the summit finish in Verbier.

That’s close to where we are heading too, only we won’t be using the road as Contador did. Our route takes us a little further east along the valley before turning and climbing on a mix of pavement and dirt up to an altitude of 1,700m. From there, things start to get really interesting.

On reaching Les Ruinettes, on the Verbier ski resort, we’re at around 2,200m and the physiological effects of the altitude on our performance are already noticeable. Our planned route will take us higher still, although the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains promise to make every strained breath worthwhile.

Standing clearly prominent on the skyline is the outline of the Grand Combin, one of the highest peaks in the Alps at 4,314m. The next section of our route, which will take us to Les Attelas, was recommended by a good friend of mine, Will, who is well-known in the Alpine biking community for his blog cycling-challenge.com.

I use the word ‘recommended’ loosely – it was more a case of him not dismissing it as impossible.

White lies

I have to conceal from Luca and Nathalie the fact I’m slightly nervous about the route to Les Attelas. What Will actually said in his email response about this climb was, and I quote, ‘There are definitely some steep pitches higher up that I think will be unrideable even for the strongest riders.’

To be fair, though, Will had also reassured me that any hike-a-bike would only be for a short distance, so with that in mind I am prepared to accept my fate. Or given that I haven’t really given Luca or Nathalie any choice, I should probably say our fate.

The climb is to take place on what can best be described as a ski lift access road. ‘Up there? Are you sure?’ questions Luca, staring up at the steep slope ahead of us. To be fair, its pitches of up to 21% appear more like a gravel wall.

‘Of course. These roads are made for trucks. We’ll be fine,’ I retort, trying to sound flippant and relaxed, even though in truth I’m having my own concerns about near-vertical riding.

The reality is that any trucks tackling these roads are generally much more capable than we are at dealing with such steep gradients, and it doesn’t take us long to verify this fact.

We’re reduced to walking fairly quickly, but this merely highlights why the attitudes that prevail in gravel riding are very different to road. Walking with our bikes for a while merely affords us a little more time to look around, drink in more of the amazing views, chat a little more and even, to an extent, recover.

Getting off and walking on a road ascent would be seen by most as defeat but on gravel it can be almost enlightening, adding to rather than detracting from the experience. We jump back on and ride wherever we can, albeit without ever straying from our smallest gears. At one point a group of hikers looks on in amazement. I think they expected us to be on e-bikes, and were shocked to see us putting in all the effort ourselves.

The top comes at a lofty 2,726m and we linger here for a while, snacking on some energy bars as we sit and enjoy the spectacular view. The Rhone valley is now far, far below us, more than 2,000m below in fact.

 

The sun is high in the sky and it brings welcome warmth – at this altitude, it can quite feasibly snow at any time of the year. Indeed we can see some big clouds starting to form on some of the distant peaks, bringing with them the possibility of afternoon storms. It’s time to head down.

Down time

With the shimmering, azure blue waters of the glacial Lac des Vaux in view off to our right, our descent starts well enough. But we are in for some surprises along the way.

First we hit a rocky section that forces us to dismount, and Luca is not amused. He doesn’t mind walking on the ups, but in his mind descents should be ridden, in the same way that caffeine should be consumed before, during, during a bit more and after a ride.

Fortunately though, this is only a very short section and we are soon back in our saddles, continuing to flow down this sinuous trail that scythes across the hillside.

As we make our way towards the Col des Mines I can hear Luca and Nathalie laughing behind me. The fun element has definitely returned, which makes me feel better. I didn’t want this section to be too much of a galère.

This is a word the French use, literally meaning ‘galley’ and in this context refers to when the fun tips too much towards Type 3: that’s to say, it’s not fun when you do it and never will be, even when you remember it with a beer in hand.

Thankfully, though, we’re firmly in Type 1 for the most part (it’s fun while you’re doing it and when you’re reminiscing about it afterwards), with maybe just a few moments of Type 2 (the fun element may be questionable at the time, but after it’s done you will definitely hold on to it as a great and happy memory) when things get a bit more extreme, but we all make it down safely, and our big (Type 1) grins tell the tale.

We soon hit a flat trail that rewards us with an amazing panoramic view over Verbier before the route climbs again for a short while to reach the summit of the Col de la Croix de Coeur.

click to subscribe

At 2,174m in altitude, an unusual feature of this peak is its grass-strip altiport, but to cyclists it is better known for providing the lofty summit finish of the Tour des Stations, the biggest road sportive in Valais, and which coincidentally took place just a few days before our ride.

While this point marked the end of a very hard day for those riding the sportive (The Ultra Fondo route is 240km with over 8,200m of ascent) our day is far from done, especially as those storm clouds look to be rolling in fast behind us.

We need to keep pushing on. Fortunately, the vast majority of the rest of the route will be heading in the direction marked ‘down’.

 

In the nick of time

We descend rapidly through a series of switchbacks to La Tzoumaz and enjoy one last superb section of descending on gravel through Forêt Verte, before returning to tarmac on our way to Nendaz and on to the valley floor in Aproz. Just across the Rhone river from where we pop out is the Domaine des Îles, a small but beautiful lake that’s very popular with the locals.

By this point we are all hungry and make no attempt to hide our desire to head straight for the cafe.

It feels a little weird to be back down in the heat of the valley again so quickly, and with so many people around us, having spent the day pretty much in isolation in the deserted high mountains, but we are more than happy to end this particular ride right here.

We’re all in agreement that it has been an amazing day out. Yes, some sections were steep, others a little sketchy where it maybe felt like riding a gravel bike was like bringing a knife to a gunfight, and yes, there was a bit of walking, but all in all each of the elements of the ride were in reasonable proportions and it felt like a true adventure.

Just as we’re gulping down ice-cold drinks and tucking into sandwiches, and with Luca finally, finally sipping on his espresso, those threatening clouds roll in and it starts to rain. Perfect timing. And that’s always a satisfying way to end a ride.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

Mountains and Valais

Remember to pack your climbing legs for this Swiss epic

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/or4/swiss. From Martigny, head towards the Col de Planches and then the Col du Tronc. Then it’s down to Vollèges and Le Châble via a mix of gravel and paved roads.

Cross the main road to Verbier and head up towards the ski resort on a small road above Sarreyer. At the top of the Ruinettes cable car route, take the steep ski lift access road to Les Attelas, the highest point of the day at 2,726m.

Leave the Lac des Vaux on your right and take the trail down to the Col des Mines, then keep descending to the panoramic trail above Verbier that leads to the Col de la Croix de Coeur. A paved road takes you to the ski resort of La Tzoumaz, where you turn right towards the Forêt Verte gravel section.

One last gentle climb takes you to Haute Nendaz, and then it’s back down to the Rhone valley in Aproz. The finish is just across the river at the Domaine des Îles.

From the finish at the Domaine des Iles, you can either take the bike path along the Rhone back to Martigny (26km, flat) or catch a train at Sion station.

The rider’s ride

Scott Speedster Gravel 10, £2,049, scott-sports.com

The Scott Speedster Gravel 10’s alloy frame specced with Shimano’s GRX RX 400 components and Syncros (Scott’s house brand) parts proved more than capable on a route that tested it to the extremes in places.

Gearing is a big concern for this style of Alpine gravel riding, and the Speedster’s 2x setup (46/30t crankset) and wide-ranging cassette (11-34t) offered plenty of versatility for the mix of super-steep climbs and fast descents.

Elsewhere, Schwalbe’s G-One Allround 700x35C tyres offered plenty of grip on loose surfaces while also allowing a decent rolling speed on the stretches of tarmac.

At 10.3kg the Speedster is a touch on the heavy side, which is to be expected perhaps without a carbon frame, but for the most part that weight was only of noticeable concern on the steep hike-a-bike sections, which were hardly a common occurrence.

Overall this Scott gets the job done, and goes to show that owning a rugged and highly capable gravel bike doesn’t have to mean selling a body part.

Buy the Scott Speedster Gravel 10 now from Rutland Cycling

Do it yourself

Travel

Geneva airport is well served and is a 90-minute drive from Martigny. Trains are a cost-effective means to get around with a bike, and Martigny has good connections.

Check flights to Geneva now on Skyscanner

When

This route is generally snow-free from late June to mid-October but it can get very cold. Check the weather forecast.

Food and drink

There are no cafes or shops on the 2,000m climb between Le Châble (at 34km) and the Col de la Croix de Coeur (at 62km). Make sure you have food and drink on this tough section.

Accommodation

In Martigny, two hotels have been awarded the Swiss Bike Hotel label by Switzerland Tourism, which distinguishes establishments offering services adapted to cyclists (storage, repair shop, balanced meals, maps, etc): the Vatel Hotel (hotelvatel.ch) and Rêves Gourmands (revesgourmands.ch). For more info on cycling in Valais visit valais.ch/cycling.

Check hotels in Valais now on Booking.com